Stephanie Grace: Nagin uses “I know nothing” defense

In attempting to deflect charges that he sold his office for personal gain, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin offered a crazy quilt of excuses that basically added up to a defense of “I know nothing.”

Nagin blamed others — his secretary, his city attorneys, his accountant, the City Council, his own sons, the press, even a super-villain storm named Katrina — for overt actions that set him up to receive favors from contractors or covered his tracks. He professed deep, frequent confusion. He insisted his outreach to Home Depot to get work for his family granite business couldn’t possibly be read as an offer to help the company secure beneficial terms for its new Central City franchise. He claimed only passing acquaintance with some of the people who secretly supported his lifestyle, even Mark St. Pierre, the recipient of millions in no-bid work who paid for Nagin’s family cell phones, lawn care and vacations and even helped him raise badly needed money for re-election.

Curiously, though, Nagin and his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, didn’t deploy what was likely their best material: The story of his administration’s early days.

More than a decade ago, soon after Nagin won office by vowing to clean up city contracting, he and his top staffers actually did something about it. In one of countless ironies of this case, they worked closely with the same U.S. Attorney’s Office that would later prosecute him, and helped the feds land some big fish.

It was the Naginites who first flagged the Johnson Controls energy saving contract signed in former Mayor Marc Morial’s waning days. The subsequent investigation ended with guilty pleas from, among others, former city property management director Kerry DeCay and political operative Stan “Pampy” Barre — who then, in an effort to reduce his prison time, wore a wire and helped nail then-City Councilman Oliver Thomas.

Over at the Regional Transit Authority, Nagin’s appointed chairman helped unravel another illegal arrangement, this one with Morial uncle and RTA consultant Glenn Haydel, who eventually pleaded guilty to stealing more than $500,000. The mayor also sought to kill the Haydel firm’s lucrative contract when news broke that Haydel had sold Nagin’s brother-in-law a 70 percent interest for just $700 — and promised him a $300,000 salary — in an apparent effort to cozy up to the new mayor.

None of this minimizes what Nagin later did, and it certainly doesn’t excuse it.

The point is that, if Nagin and Jenkins had chosen to emphasize the former mayor’s anti-corruption bona fides, they could have. It’s not at all clear why they didn’t.

The more intriguing question, though, is how jurors would have reconciled that picture of Nagin with the one the feds painted.

This was the Nagin who, according to prosecutors, participated in a series of schemes to cash in on his official position. The man who, they said, helped Frank Fradella boost his company’s stock price in exchange for money and free granite for Stone Age, the Nagins’ countertop business.

The man who’s accused of securing “investments” in Stone Age from Three Fold Consultants even as his signature set the firm up to receive several million dollars worth of work. The man who accepted a family trip to New York on a private jet from George Solomon at the same time he waived a tax penalty for the owner of a failed theater in New Orleans East, after he had laid off city employees for lack of tax revenue, the feds noted. And so on.

The common denominator to all these alleged crimes? Whenever a contractor needed him, “He would seize on that opportunity to get something in return,” as Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Pickens put in his closing.

So how did the Ray Nagin of those early days become the Ray Nagin in the trial of his life and now awaiting a jury’s verdict on a 21-count federal indictment?

Here’s one possibility: Maybe he didn’t change at all.

Nagin was awfully tough on others back in the day, but even then, he never seemed to worry too much about his own behavior. He and his team were the good guys, they professed, the outsiders who took huge pay cuts to be there, who brought business principles to City Hall, and who really couldn’t be bothered with the stodgy old ways of government. Sometimes the public benefited, like when Greg Meffert, the tech chief who would later admit taking bribes from St. Pierre, crossed into the assessors’ turf and posted data on the Internet that showed just how inequitable property taxes were. Sometimes it didn’t, like when the administration simply bypassed public records laws and communicated via a BlackBerry text messaging function that didn’t store messages — one of the ways prosecutors say Nagin tried to conceal his allegedly illegal acts.

The story of Nagin’s anti-corruption crusades would have undoubtedly been more appealing than the one the jury heard. In the end, though, the moral would have been the same: Nagin believed the rules applied to everyone but him. He always did.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.